Nathan Bransford, Author


Monday, December 3, 2007

Genre Hopping

I read books from nearly every single genre, and I know I'm not alone -- book lovers love books, all kinds of books. And so it naturally follows that when people sit down at the old typewriter they want to write books in every genre under the sun. Sometimes at the same time. I often receive queries from people who are shopping novels in multiple genres, even massively different genres, such as science fiction and historical romance.

But here's the thing -- for the most part (big caveat alert), genre hopping isn't always the best move.

I know. You have a killer idea for a science fiction novel involving monkey space cannibals and you ALSO have an idea for a historical fiction novel about a group of courtesans in King Arthur's court who are actually monkey space cannibals. WHAT TO DO??

Well, pick one, for starters. And then go all out. Because, as most of you know, it's really, really hard to break out in one genre. It takes mountains of time, effort, luck, perseverance, luck, effort, perseverance... time... I could keep repeating myself indefinitely. I could keep repeating myself indefinitely. Breaking out is really hard to do, and the kings of genre fiction have worked for years to steadily build an audience (and a brand) within the same genre. Heck, even writing a novel within a genre that's saleable usually takes several attempts.

Did I mention it's hard? It's hard. So you make it even harder for yourself when you splinter your time, attention, learning curve, and, eventually, your audience by jumping around to different genres.

But. Genre hopping can be done, and done well. And here's the best method: first you become hugely successful.

Take John Grisham. He wrote legal thrillers that became some of the most successful and popular books of our time. However, his most recent book has nothing to do with the courtroom -- it's about a football team (the American kind) in Italy and it's called PLAYING FOR PIZZA, and oh yes, it's a massive bestseller. Why is he able to do this? BECAUSE HE IS JOHN GRISHAM.

Unless someone could type in one of those TM symbols after your name without anyone blinking or thinking it's strange, chances are you probably aren't there yet.

I know there are exceptions, people who are successfully able to juggle multiple genres, whether it's by using pen names or just following their own drummer. But genre hopping should really only be undertaken in close consultation with your agent and after a lot of soul searching -- are you hopping because it's fun or because it's the best career move? If it's the former, have all the fun you want, but don't forget that a writing career is a marathon, and it's hard to win when you sit down every mile to change your shoes.






45 comments:

Anonymous said...

How about fantasy - science fiction hopping?

cynjay said...

How about the genres within kidlit? What if you write a few picture books, a couple of mid grades and some YA?

I have this talk with my agent all the time, and her answer is "write what you love."

Nathan Bransford said...

anon-

Fantasy and science fiction are a bit squishier than others since they're a bit more closely related, and it really depends, but I'd still prefer that the author tries to build a brand and a signature style rather than hopping if the differences are too great. At the end of the day they're still different genres, and while there may be a bit more overlap in terms of readership, too drastic a shift could be negative.

A clear exception to this would be, for instance, if the genre of the first novel was dark urban fantasy and the second book is dark urban science fiction. If the worlds and style are similar and the genre distinctions are only technical (i.e. whether it's present day or twenty years in the future) I could see it working more seamlessly.

Still, it comes down to that last question -- whether it's part of building a brand/career or whether it's for fun.

Nathan Bransford said...

cynjay-

Good point. Kid-book-dom is a bit more fluid than the adult side.

Loren said...

If you just have to do it what do you recommend? A pen name or an understanding agent?

Nathan Bransford said...

loren-

Sometimes it takes both an agent and a pen name. But step 1 is the agent.

original bran fan said...

"Heck, even writing a novel within a genre that's saleable usually takes several attempts."

So true, so true...

The follow-up to this: if you have a novel that kinda falls into two genres, pick one (only one!) when you write your query and make sure your query hits the expected genre stuff. No "mystery/romance." No "mystery with romance overtones." It's a mystery.

Heather B. Moore said...

That's the dilemma I'm in right now. I've spent four years writing historical novels (4 published, 3 more on contract). But I don't want to do that the rest of my life. The research alone is enough to make a dry woman drink. Now I want to break into the thriller market.

Curtastrophe said...

I'm amazed because yesterday I was just thinking about asking you this question. Thanks!

Laurel Amberdine said...

Ouch, Heather, that's tough.

I abandoned a novel that got a lot of professional attention because I didn't ever want to write anything like it again.

Now, I may never publish anything, but at least I'll be writing unpublishable stuff I have fun with..

Hm, maybe this isn't a good example!

Kate said...

"...a group of courtesans in King Arthur's court who are actually monkey space cannibals."

So, women are monkeys and cannibals, in your opinion. Is this how you view all women or only those whom society disenfranchised to the point of having no other option but to be a prostitute?

Anonymous said...

Kate - I don't want to be the idiot posting a serious reply to a joke (wait... I want to be one...) but I noticed that you didn't have any smiles in your post, so you must have been serious.

I think that the whole concept was meant as a statement of disapproval of the gender oppression in the middle ages.

What kind of a knight of a round table are you if you confuse a hairy animal wearing a space suit with a human female?

Sam Hranac said...

======== QUOTE ===========
You have a killer idea for a science fiction novel involving monkey space cannibals and you ALSO have an idea for a historical fiction novel about a group of courtesans in King Arthur's court who are actually monkey space cannibals.
======== END QUOTE =======

GET OUT OF MY HEAD!!!

Katherine E. Hazen said...

I'm curious, because it's something I've seen quite a few times lately, what about writing both adult and YA, but the same genre for both (ie paranormal romance, fantasy, urban fantasy, whatever)?

I've heard over and over about how authors are not to genre hop, they should build their name in one genre, and it makes perfect business sense. But I'm seeing it more and more, and I can see where there would still be problems, so I can't help but wonder if it's just a little more acceptable from an agent's perspective.

Nathan Bransford said...

katherine-

Adult to kid's (or vice versa) is still something that would have to be addressed on a case by case basis in consultation with your agent. It's very very different writing, very different audiences, and sure -- some make it work, but it depends on each situation.

Linnea said...

I know you're right and I hate it that you're right. I love to read thrillers and murder/mysteries but my attempts at writing either have fizzled out. My niche appears to be historical fiction so I'm sticking with it.

Linnea said...

Anonymous - Your reference to gender oppression in the middle ages isn't exactly accurate. Have a look at "Women in the Middle Ages" by Frances & Joseph Gies and "Memoirs of a Medieval Woman" by Louise Collis. Might just change your opinion.

Isak said...

The trouble is, whenever I get an idea for something, it's not in one genre or the other. I just get an idea for a story that I can relate to, or that I know, and then I (attempt to) add my voice to that story. The way I see it, genres seem to be a limitation. Then again, I'm not trying to merge zombies and super-intelligent monkeys mutated by space radiation like some mad scientist on meth, I'm just trying to tell a story.

Gabriele C. said...

How about Historical Fiction and Sword & Sorcery in an Alternate Historical Setting?

I tried to talk with that plotbunny, I really did. But they never listen. :)

Sam Hranac said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Erik said...

The thing is, once you decide it's not worth the bother to be published you can write whatever you want.

Honestly, I can't see why anyone would put the effort into all the little things that publishers want you to do. Once you're going through the effort to meet someone else's requirements, you have to be doing this as some kind of job. There are far, far better jobs for writers than this - ones that pay a decent salary all the time, not just when you finally get some publisher to read yer stuff.

I honestly don't understand this. If you enjoy writing, write what you want. But to go through all these little hoops in the hope of making a career? Seems like the lottery has a better expected return.

This is why self-publishing will continue to take off.

Heidi the Hick said...

I think the main point of sticking to a genre is to find a place in the bookstore to shelve the book. Right? And that if you actually do end up with a real book, and readers, your agent will advise you to write something those readers will want to read.

Unless the plan is to not make a career of it, in which case those medieval cannibal space monkeys could be a lot of fun.

Kimber An said...

Aw, man, someone stole my Space Monkey Cannibals in King Arthur's Court story! I am so incredibly bummed. I think I'll drown my sorrows in chocolate chip cookies and Romulan Ale.

This is a pertinent article for me. Thank you!

Now, following your advice is going to take a lot of whip-cracking.

Sam Hranac said...

Kimber An, as Erik suggested, only crack whips if that is what you're in to. Writing takes to much physical and psychic energy to write less than what you want to write.

Curtastrophe said...

I agree with Sam.

Anonymous said...

Like OMG! Someone ripped up my space monkey cannibal idea!

Anonymous said...

Off. Ripped off my idea.

A Paperback Writer said...

Ah, Nathan, you forgot -- or perhaps are unaware of the fact -- that Connie Willis expertly pulls off sci-fi/historical in Doomsday Book and its sequel, To Say Nothing of the Dog (and in a couple of short stories). But then, she's a pro. I agree with you that it's not something for the novice to attempt. (Yes, Grasshopper, when you can snatch the Kindle from my hand you may write about the Cannibal Monkeys in King Arthur's Court -- after you interview Mark Twain.)

Nathan Bransford said...

APW-

I didn't intend to recommend against genre combining, just hopping. If your signature style is jazz-infused historical science fiction with a twist of romance and humor, that's totally cool. However, if you wanted to then follow that up with staid nonfiction you might want to think twice. You might want to stick with jazz-infused historical science fiction with a twist of romance and humor. Or something close to it. It's all about the brand.

Kimber An said...

I think the best thing about securing the services of an agent one day will be in having him or her say, "Polish that story up next."

I'm scattered across the spectrum and treasure any help I can get on focusing.

My original thought on this issue was I would switch genres or sub-genres each time I polished up a new story for submission. My logic was that I would be figuring out which kind of story I was best suited to telling.

sex scenes at starbucks said...

That last comment is interesting in that short stories are an excellent place to test new waters as a writer. In fact, anyone who knows me knows I'm a huge proponent of short fiction anyway. But it's a great place to switch, because we zine editors could care less what you've written before (ok, we care a little bit, but much less than you expect). We mostly care about what's on the page right in front of us.

CarBeyond said...

I hate this Nathan. I remember the first time, as an artist, that I tried to show my portfolio to a gallery owner. I was soooooo inexperienced / and he said: You have a huge talent, but don't show the whole thing to a potential collector/clientele. Show a section so that the audience can follow you.

Looks like the same damn thing with writing.

i.e., Show off your Lit fic or show off your fantasy or your journalism, but not all three (for goodness sakes, you'll confuse the readers who can follow work with only one genre at a time AT least under the same name)... What BS is this? All for the audience to "get it?"

I do understand, and I don't. What if an author is THAT talented?

Is it about the marketing? I really am not trying to be rude, but I don't get it. I am sorry if I sound so simple, but I am trying to understand, and I would sincerely appreciate a better explanation.

What if a talent was that talented that to hold them to a "style" would limit their talent?????


Should it really be that limited?

Kimber An said...

I think it is about the marketing. Isn't it, Nathan? Readers need time to get to know an author, just like we need time to get to know a new friend. Human nature. I get that.

You can write whatever you want. Just save the outside-the-box stories until you're established.

Isn't it true that a genre author should be putting out at least one book, preferably two, per year?

I'm not sure if this is true overall, but in my observation as a book reviewer who interacts regularly with readers two books a year seems ideal for a genre author. I've noticed with just one book a year, it's almost like we forget. With three books, the poor author is fried from juggling that with the rest of her Real Life.

lainey bancroft said...

carbeyond asks: "What if an author is THAT talented?"

If an author is talented enough to pen great books in 2 completely different genres, then IMHO, they shouldn't need to ride on their own coat tails to establish the new genre. Jay Smith should stick to science fiction and let Kay Smith hit the romance market.

Speaking from a readers standpoint, I pick up a Grisham for a courtroom drama. I pick up J Patterson for his Alex Cross or women's murder club, then he wrote that love letter book...ack, sorry can't think of the title right now...and I didn't care for it at all. Maybe if had Danielle Steel's name on the cover???

Lupina said...

Carbeyond,
Much as I also hate the idea that genre-hopping is verboten for those aspiring to traditional publishing success, your art portfolio analogy is probably a very good one. I'm also an illustrator and although I have two rather different styles of illustration, my art rep will only handle one of them because he doesn't want to confuse the clients. I still do the other style but generally for smaller clients that I can approach on my own. Maybe it DOES work exactly the same way for books.

Isak said...

Can anyone think of any successful authors who have genre-hopped their entire career (from beginning to now)? Or, rather, have made a career out of genre-hopping?

And is genre hopping all right as long as the author's voice is maintained from book to book?

Kimber An said...

Jane Yolen

wonderer said...

kimber an wrote...

My original thought on this issue was I would switch genres or sub-genres each time I polished up a new story for submission. My logic was that I would be figuring out which kind of story I was best suited to telling.

That's about where I am. My three WIPs that are closest to being submission-ready are adult fantasy, YA fantasy, and adult urban fantasy with a heavy dose of comedy, and I was contemplating trying out space opera next. Now I'm reconsidering, thanks to Nathan's post. But I don't know which sub-genre to pick as the "one and only" that I get to write for the foreseeable future. I love secondary-world fantasy, but is that what I most want to write? I had a lot of fun with that urban fantasy....

isak wrote...

Can anyone think of any successful authors who have genre-hopped their entire career (from beginning to now)? Or, rather, have made a career out of genre-hopping?

Diane Duane has had success with both writing in shared adult SF universes (Star Trek) and writing YA fantasy (the Young Wizard series). The style and audience are quite different, but as Nathan said, they're both still speculative fiction and that makes things easier.

Anne McCaffrey has written both soft science fiction and "science fantasy" (the Pern books often read like fantasy but are technically science fiction). But her voice is pretty consistent, and I imagine the audience is too.

I can also offer a counter-example. Lois McMaster Bujold's first love was fantasy, but her first sale was SF. It wasn't until many SF books later that she was finally able to convince her publisher (or agent? not sure which) to let her publish a fantasy novel.

CarBeyond said...

OK Thanks all. I think I am starting to get it.
It helps me by looking at it from the perspective of other types of creative work.
In art, in an exhibition, one shows a body of work.
In a retrospective exhibition, it may show how an artist's work moved over decades.
For many artists, they have collectors who prefer a specific period of an artist's work.
From the point of view of creativity, however, many people who are creative
spill over into other areas or need to move and grow into new areas or combine areas of cross-talent.
However, that may not make sense until they have been focused enough to fully develop in one area first.
Bob Dylan is like that too. And where he confused and even angered people when he switched around at times, at the end of several decades he is understood as THAT talented.
Which, personally, I find very interesting in any artist, writer, musician, actor, cook, comic, etc., that they can produce work that is that developed in many areas.
(And what a challenge that must be for an agent.)
And experimentation in many creative areas or media or genres may be useful as one explores their own creative path and help in the process of finding his/her voice or calling.
It is also a shame when a creative person flits from thing to thing without really developing one or the other.

Daisy Whitney said...

Does the stay-away-from-genre-hopping advice also apply to writing a novel and then writing non-fiction? Or are there instances where a writer can pull off writing non-fiction and then writing a novel (in any genre)?

Nathan Bransford said...

daisy-

It really all depends on the particular author and the particular projects, so it's usually helpful to discuss it with your agent, who might have more of a sense of whether it's a good move.

Kristan said...

But genre hopping should really only be undertaken in close consultation with your agent and after a lot of soul searching -- are you hopping because it's fun or because it's the best career move? If it's the former, have all the fun you want, but don't forget that a writing career is a marathon, and it's hard to win when you sit down every mile to change your shoes.

LOVE the analogy.

Suzette Saxton said...

Thanks so much for blogging about this! I will be linking to it tomorrow from the Query Tracker Blog.

Anonymous said...

@Isak (and rest of readers in general):

Isaac Asimov. 'Nuff said.

(Surprising you didn't mention him since your first name is a variant of his.) :-)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isaac_Asimov

"Asimov was one of the most prolific writers of all time, having written or edited more than 500 books and an estimated 90,000 letters and postcards. His works have been published in all ten major categories of the Dewey Decimal System..."

bOOkwOrm said...

Hi there,

I'm thinking of writing a dystopian genre novel, but first I want to write a life story turned into a non-fantasy fiction novel. Would this be ok? Do you know what I mean?

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